Mourning Becomes Electra | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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Mourning Becomes Electra | The Hunted, Act 2 | Summary

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Summary

The act takes place in the Mannon sitting room. The walls are covered with numerous portraits of Mannon ancestors, going back to the witch-burning era. All the men look very much like Ezra Mannon. Peter Niles and Hazel Niles sit in the room while Orin Mannon looks for his mother, Christine Mannon. Peter and Hazel discuss how Orin has changed.

Orin finds Christine and asks where she went. While he seems suspicious of her, he also responds favorably to her coddling. This includes physically caring for him as if he were a child, such as putting a cushion behind his head. Orin jokes that his sister coddles his father in the same way, momentarily forgetting that Ezra is dead.

Orin says that women don't understand how bad war is. Perhaps, he says, women should fight one time, so they wouldn't be so excited at the glory of it. He goes on about death until Peter tells him to stop.

Lavinia Mannon comes to get Orin to look at their father's body. Christine discourages Orin, and he doesn't go. After Lavinia leaves, Christine relates to Orin all that Lavinia (and the audience) knows to be true: Captain Adam Brant's parentage, the affair she and Brant have been having, and Ezra's murder. She says that Lavinia will try to convince Orin of these things but that they're all falsehoods: he mustn't believe her. She's crazy. She's angry that Brant wasn't courting her, and she even followed Christine to New York out of suspicion. She begins to weep as she speaks of this, and Orin throws himself before her on his knees. He assures her he'll never believe these things are true. In fact, he'll prevent Lavinia from calling the police if she tries to. He would never allow the family to be dishonored in that way.

Christine is thrilled by his response, calling Orin her baby and saying she loves him. But then Orin says he will kill Brant if he comes around: "I'd show you then I hadn't been taught to kill for nothing!" Christine is horrified by this and says Orin frightens her.

Orin changes the subject. He asks why she didn't write him very often. Then, he talks about the dreams he had of her while he was gone. He read the book Typee (1846) by American author Herman Melville (1819–91) over and over. He used to imagine her on the South Sea Islands portrayed in it. He saw the islands as representing "everything that wasn't war, everything that was peace and warmth and security." He heard her voice in the waves and saw her eyes in the sky. They discuss how he has grown and how happy Christine is that he's returned. He remembers brushing her hair as a child. Ezra hated seeing that.

Lavinia enters to get Orin. He agrees to go with her this time. After he steps out, Christine tells her she can tell Orin whatever she wants because she has already told him. He believes Lavinia is insane and jealous. She says that Orin wouldn't even call the police if he knew. He wouldn't want the family disgraced, and he's glad his father is dead.

Then, she changes her mind and begs Lavinia not to talk to Orin. She's terrified about how it would affect him. She says he's changed and all he thinks about is death. She says he would kill Brant, and then she would kill herself. Lavinia glares at Christine then stalks from the room. Christine runs to tell Brant.

Analysis

The portraits on the walls watch over the current residents. They are symbolic of life and death in the Mannon house and Christine's statement that the Mannon house is like a tomb. Every Mannon male grows up with portraits of the dead and the gone, many of whom look just like him. They must know they will someday also be gone and future generations will live among these portraits, enshrining them as if they're tombstones. The portraits, therefore, add to the sense of darkness and death that permeates the play.

Orin seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was called "soldier's heart" in the years following the American Civil War (1861–65) and "shell shock" in O'Neill's time. Orin talks frequently of death and fantasizes about women instead of men doing the killing. He also imagines killing Brant. Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares or distressing memories of the event, anger and irritability, or being constantly on the lookout for signs of danger. It can lead to thoughts of suicide or death. While it is unlikely that Lavinia knew anything about PTSD or that her brother is experiencing it, his words certainly show that he has death on his mind. In the coming acts Lavinia and her mother will exploit this vulnerability.

In Homecoming Brant mentioned the islands and island women. In The Hunted O'Neill brings back this reference through Orin's talk about the novel Typee. Melville's novel, published about 20 years before the play takes place, purported to be a semiautobiographical travelogue. In it Melville described his time among the exotic people of Typee, an island in the South Seas. Melville described the people as beautiful, but they were also sometimes cannibals. Therefore, Orin's fantasizing about this island is wishing for escape. However, it is also flirting with danger and even death.

The odd, pseudo-sexual, Oedipal relationship between Christine and Orin is in full force in this act. Christine coddles and touches Orin and even throws herself at his feet. She tries to use this relationship to her advantage. However, she realizes that, if Orin knows she's having sex with Brant, all bets may be off. Thus, she reverses directions with Lavinia—going from not caring to begging her to say nothing.

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